IFRAO 1988-2000: the first dozen years

The study of rock art may be thousands of years old, with the earliest rock art recordings we know of found in China, but in comparison to this long history of our discipline, IFRAO is a very recent phenomenon. And yet, even after the first twelve years of the federation’s existence its effects on this discipline are indelible and irreversible. I would like to review the brief history of this organisation and its accomplishments — not in a self-congratulatory manner, but to consider its progress, performance, and most particularly its probable future direction.

In most respects the work of IFRAO has been rather low key, consensus oriented and discreet. This is because its original charter decreed that IFRAO will not meddle in the domestic business of member organisations or interfere in matters of their autonomy. Moreover, the federation was conceived as a democratic body, with only the most minimal formal structure, created particularly to facilitate reciprocal assistance and the streamlining of common goals through indirect means rather than by direct action.

IFRAO was founded on 3 September 1988 in Darwin, Australia, immediately after the conclusion of the First AURA Congress. Inspired by the great success of that event, representatives of nine rock art organisations met informally to discuss common interests and international co-operation. They decided spontaneously to form a federation, named it, and set out its charter in general terms: it should be a common forum and initiator of policies, projecting or representing the common interests of member organisations without interfering in their autonomy. It would operate as a democratic advisory body in which each member organisation would hold one vote, exercised by an official representative. International meetings would be held by nominating suitable rock art conferences as official IFRAO congresses at regular intervals.

Within two months, nine rock art organisations confirmed their affiliation with IFRAO: ACASPP, AURA, CeSMAP, CIARU, a French group that is now defunct, RAAM, SARARA, SIARB and IRA. In the years since then, this number has quadrupled to thirty-six, and the current members of IFRAO cover most of the world. The only significant rock art regions not as yet covered by the activities of IFRAO members are the Middle East and Scandinavia. The combined memberships of these thirty-six organisations are thought to include about 7000 rock art specialists, i.e. practically all such specialists in the world.

Until the 1980s, individual rock art researchers as well as rock art organisations around the world operated largely without being aware of the work conducted in other parts of the world — sometimes even in their own country or region of activity. As a result the discipline experienced a great diversity of research approaches and terminology, reflected in a multitude of idiosyncratic constructs, sequences, chronologies, names and definitions. Communication was limited, and where it did occur it often led to misunderstandings, and clarifications sometimes led to academic feuds.
Therefore one of IFRAO’s initial principal concerns was the standardisation of those aspects of the discipline that are essential for effective communication and collaboration: methodology, terminology, ethics, and the technical standards used in analysis and recording. These subjects were addressed through extensive consultation of specialists and, where appropriate, the deliberations of appointed sub-committees. For instance, the IFRAO Standard Scale was designed by a process of consultation over a period of three years before it was produced in 1994. It has since become the universal colour calibration standard not only in this field, but is being used also by museologists, palaeontologists, archaeologists, pedologists, geologists, conservators and many others. As the only international colour standard backed by colour re-constitution software its prospects of becoming a widely used research and documentation tool are self-evident. Almost 20 000 specimens of the IFRAO Standard Scale have now been distributed worldwide, and it will be reprinted in 2001.

To establish a uniform code of ethics for all rock art researchers in the world, IFRAO appointed a sub-committee at its 1998 meeting in Cochabamba which has just produced a draft code, to be ratified shortly. Wide-ranging consultation has also been the basis of determining a uniform terminology, which has led to the publication of a draft glossary of rock art science in July 1999. Having been subjected to further improvements after suggestions from many more cutting-edge researchers was received, this draft is about to be finalised. Methodology has experienced a more subtle process of standardisation, in which un-rigorous practices have been gradually weeded out, through debate, editorial practices and good example.

One of the most effective aspects of this streamlining process has been the collaboration of IFRAO members in publishing. In 1988 it was decided that Rock Art Research would be the official organ of the federation, whose style was then adopted in a deliberate expression of solidarity by several of the excellent journals produced by members, thus underlining the concept of standardisation. Agreements for the unfettered re-publication of material exist among members, as well as informal practices of editorial collaboration which may extend to the re-assignment of submitted work or multiple publication of important material. Within this system of wide-ranging co-operation each of the many journals of IFRAO has established a niche within which it thrives, and the complete absence of any negative competition is a particularly striking feature of this system.

IFRAO has been particularly effective in the area of rock art protection and preservation, in what can only be described as a text-book example of collaboration. While the measures taken collectively or individually by members of IFRAO may not be readily apparent in most cases, their effects have been profoundly manifest. The two principal strategies have been to eradicate unfavourable recording, management, research and conservation practices in general, and to address threats to specific sites, arising usually from development work. Both strategies have been successful beyond all expectations. In the case of eradicating such practices as the wetting of paintings, chalking, contact recording, and a variety of unsound management approaches, the subtle but very sustained campaign of IFRAO has led to a reduction of such practices by more than 90 per cent in about eight years, and there is every expectation that these practices, which had been rampant for well over a century in many parts of the world, will be fully eliminated in the very near future. This alone is such a spectacular success that IFRAO deserves to be congratulated, particularly when one considers the initial magnitude of the problem. It is hardly a coincidence that one of the regions of continuing problems, Scandinavia, is also one of the few areas where no IFRAO member operates.

Secondly, IFRAO has since 1988 conducted a campaign of targeting projects throughout the world that were detrimental to rock art. In the course of this work I have discovered that most destruction of rock art sites is unintended, and once the inappropriateness of a specific course of action — such as the construction of a road, quarrying activity, industrial development or whatever the case — has been pointed out to the developers in question they are usually quite willing to alter their plans, if only to avoid controversy. In twelve years, IFRAO has attended to numerous such cases, with examples in every continent, and the majority of them required no more than a polite but stern letter from the IFRAO Convener or the region’s IFRAO Representative. In most cases it was soon realised that the detrimental action could be averted without difficulties: the quarrying operations for a common mineral such as limestone or granite could easily be re-sited, a planned road or freeway could be re-routed at no additional cost, an industrial development could be achieved without the destruction of rock art, or a national park development could be planned so as not to expose rock art to uncontrolled visitation. The only notable exception to this was the case of the Côa sites in northern Portugal, which were under threat from development. Here, the recalcitrant former Portuguese government opposed IFRAO’s demand for preservation of the rock art. The Portuguese IFRAO office called on the support of the international community and within a year secured the declaration of the Côa valley as a protected area.

In evaluating the performance of IFRAO in its first dozen years we particularly need to appreciate that this is an unfunded organisation that depends entirely on the enthusiasm of its board and on the willingness of individuals to work hard without any prospect of reward, for values they strongly believe in. It also relies heavily on the preparedness of its representatives to face, if necessary, powerful establishments or to pursue politically unpopular policies. A classical example are the trials of Mila Simões de Abreu, who has been, and still is, ruthlessly pursued for her endeavours to save Portuguese rock art from obliteration. Over the years IFRAO has earned a well-deserved reputation of placing the interests of the rock art before those of public agencies, and of providing rock art researchers with a forum and a voice. In my experience, IFRAO has sometimes had to act as an ‘anti-establishment’ league, opposing powerful and sometimes vicious interests, both academic and political. In such confrontations individual IFRAO representatives have found themselves victimised on several occasion. The future effectiveness of IFRAO will depend largely on the continued willingness of individuals to forego personal advancement in favour of what is best for rock art, and to oppose, if necessary, powerful interests at great personal cost. The importance of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) in tempering the power of the state is becoming increasingly evident as we enter a new millennium.

This leads me to my predictions for IFRAO’s future and future direction. Over the first dozen years, the federation was able to catch those interests off-guard whose activities or policies were likely to be detrimental either to the rock art or the discipline. The next twelve years will be harder. History demonstrates that any entity that gains influence will be taken over or swallowed up by the establishments whose power it encroaches upon. Therefore I expect to see greater efforts to curtail IFRAO’s influence and effectiveness, and I expect that we will need to become more politically astute if we are to preserve our idealistic vigour. We may need to learn from NGOs facing powerful political or corporate interests, such as environmentalist groups, to see how they deal with this factor.

Robert G. Bednarik
Convener of IFRAO
December 2000